I recently returned from a vacation during which I found myself thinking a lot about generosity, specifically, the question of what constitutes a generous act. As my family and I traveled through north-central Europe, my thoughts kept returning, oddly, to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). On previous visits I, like many, had been struck by the inherent difficulty of navigating a medieval environment—centuries-old steps, curbs, thresholds—but this time I kept noticing subtle modifications and insertions that had been added to that picturesque, character-filled environment to accommodate the needs of wheeled- or otherwise-assisted mobility.
I finally arrived at a phrase to describe what I was seeing: pragmatic generosity.
A motivation of contradictions
On the face of it, the phrase seems like a contradiction. Generosity is, by definition, selfless—expecting nothing in return—while pragmatism implies a certain return on investment. And yet, I think it encapsulates a key motivation in how we create the public realm.
Take, for example, the ADA, the federal law that says that all public facilities must accommodate all people, regardless of ability. At its root, it is a fundamentally generous act mandating that anyone who builds anything that is used by the general public must spend a specific percentage of their budget on provisions for those who need a little bit of help.
But along the way, the environment that it created is one that everyone benefits from: ramps that allow a delivery driver to more easily push his two-wheeler from the truck to the office on one unbroken route; door handles that are easy for anyone to open, even with an armload of bags and a rambunctious puppy on a leash; light levels that ensure that everyone can read the fine print, even those of us who are desperately resisting bifocals. The generosity of the ADA, and the similar acts in Europe, result in an environment that is measurably and demonstrably better for everyone.
A schoolhouse to bring the community pride
On our way heading north out of Prague, we stopped in the tiny farm town of Dobrin. I had seen pictures of what looked like an intriguing Early Childhood School on an architecture blog, and I dragged my family along on the off-chance that the building might be fun. What I discovered, through the good graces of Google Translate and a mother and her approximately 8-year old daughter (who, recognizing the school from the picture on my phone, asked her mom if she could show me the way before promptly bolting down the street, leaving me to follow her down the block and around the corner with my son jumping into the driver’s seat in order to follow me in our rental car), was a fully realized demonstration of the power of pragmatic generosity.
After thanking my little guide (she giggled and waved and ran back down the street to her house), I approached the fence around the school and extended my trusty app to a teacher, explaining who I was and my interest in their school. In short order, they located the one teacher who spoke English and my family and I were invited in for a complete tour of the grounds.
We learned that the community had pooled their money in a collective expression of their commitment to education and the future success of their children in order to hire an esteemed Czech architect to design this, the sole public institution in their town. Jiří Střítecký was one of the founding partners of Atelier 8000, an innovative and prestigious architecture firm with offices in České Budějovice and Prague. Unfortunately, this school was to be his last project as he died in 2012 at the early age of 58. But he left behind a wonderful mixture of refined design and fairy-tale whimsy.
Along the river, a community works together
The school sits between the river and a small plaza with a stage and shelter at one end, and fills a supporting role during events and festivals as the only large public hall in the town. This blurring of the roles extends into the daily operations of the school as it also encourages the involvement of the older residents—grandparents and neighbors—in such vital roles as lunch server, nose wiper, story teller and playmate.
The pedagogy of the school complies with the strict standards set by the state, but elements of a constructive, project- and play-based learning strategy are evident in the gorgeous student work that adorns every surface of the school and in the shelves packed with inspiration binders assembled by the teachers and staff to inform and supplement the learning goals of every week in the year.
Designing a fairy tale school
The interior of the building is primarily composed of one large volume dominated by three sculptural tree-like column assemblies which reach out gracefully to prop up a glorious draped ceiling which is, in turn, mysteriously illuminated by an angular strip of a monitor window. Smaller spaces arrayed along the plaza side of the building ensure that the focus of the space is directed in the opposite direction—toward the outdoor play yard and the nearby river—while seamlessly supporting the activities of the main volume. Czech preschools must meet the most rigorous of standards and this school is no exception – we were told that the kitchen alone was required to have seven different sinks and it is truly an impressive facility. A great deal of effort was made to ensure a sense of connection between the kitchen and the children’s space focused around a faceted pass through with a custom, motorized overhead sliding window which opens to facilitate distribution of meals and interactions.
But the most engaging aspect of the project, both inside and out, is the elaborate and whimsical sculptures that serve as decoration and window trim, picture frames and door panels, all unique and all created by the sculptor and architect Jiří Vorel. Their exaggerated proportions, primitive features and sumptuous natural colors suggest ancient fairy tales and legends and share (and perhaps inspire) some of the energy and vitality of the children’s own work. They also serve as a unifying theme, tying together the inside and outside. And, while the inside is wonderful, the outside is extraordinary! Porches, decks, patios, pathways, a hill long enough to roll down and steep enough to require a rope to assist little hands along the journey back to the top, a pair of living huts joined by a tunnel, sound walls with triangles, cymbals and an oversized wooden xylophone, even an underground speaking tube with a wiggly whimsical stainless-steel cone. This is an environment that challenges the body, fosters curiosity and wonder, engages the senses and the imagination and facilitates interaction between child and nature, child and child, child and adult, and child and community.
Remarkable pride, childhood wonder
And when lunch is over, the teachers give the word and the children help themselves to the berries growing in the garden alongside herbs and vegetables for the kitchen.
What is remarkable about this place is the care and stewardship taken by all—children and adults. There are no fences keeping the kids out of the garden, the pump that supplies the water tables with water is an old-fashioned metal one with a long handle and the living huts and tunnel are made of growing saplings. There is an expectation that everyone will take care of this place because it is their responsibility and it is a wonderful place.
And the other thing that is remarkable is the pride in the eyes of all who participate in it. They have created something special and they know it, and they are glad to share it because it is something they are really proud of. And they should be. It is a wonderful place.
So, to return to our original theme: This school required an enormous outlay of resources, revenue, time and energy from a community that is neither wealthy nor ostentatious. Hard-working people contributed a great deal to make a special place for the children of the community. Members of the community continue to invest their time and effort in sustaining the high-quality learning environment they have created.
And in return, they created a focal point for the community, a meeting hall and gathering place, a place in which to belong, form and strengthen the bonds of family and community, a third teacher that truly inspires and engenders learning and engagement, a source of enduring pride, an investment in the future that will keep paying dividends for generations to come.